The surprising rebirth of grits, the gloppy goop that many of us were raised on -- and which can still be found cuddling next to eggs at the IHOP -- has some culinary rebels yelling, "The South shall rise again!"
Unlike polenta, the cornmeal mush that when cooled can be cut into polite little Jell-O squares, true grits are usually ground from white corn and spooned in a steamy blob that oozes onto everything it touches. It's not the most dignified of dishes, a sort of obnoxious neighbor who invites himself over to dinner.
So no one was more shocked than I was to see this unrefined dish rubbing elbows with the likes of Cafe Annie [1728 Post Oak Boulevard, (713)840-1111]. A few months ago I was served a rib eye with a side of grits and greens. I must confess, the combo held no appeal for me. I like greens, but I like them with a little pepper sauce at a soul-food restaurant or at my mother's house, not mixed with grits. My misgivings, however, melted away when the dainty dish arrived -- not in the standard side-order bowl you may find at Luby's or Goode Co. -- but in a classic ramekin. Inside, the slightly bitter arugula, mustard greens and buttery grits played well together.
I later discovered grits on the menus at Ouisie's Table [3939 San Felipe, (713)528-2264] and Urbana [3407 Montrose, (713)521-1086], seemingly spreading and oozing across the restaurant scene like the dish itself. Puzzled at first, I learned the renaissance of this Southern delicacy is due, almost entirely, to one man.
"I grew up eatin' grits for breakfast, lunch and dinner," says Urbana's executive chef Jimmy Mooney, with a Loo-siana accent as smooth as a shot of Southern Comfort. "I loved 'em."
As you might have figured, Mooney landed at Urbana by way of Cafe Annie and Ouisie's. "Years ago I said I wanted to cook grits, and Robert [Del Grande of Cafe Annie] laughed," Mooney remembers. "Now, he's got grits all over the menu."
That's not quite accurate. Although Del Grande says all the people in his kitchen, not just Mooney, have been "grits promoters" since the restaurant opened in 1981, no grits can be found on Cafe Annie's menu. But he's thinking about bringing them back. "I love grits, but, you know, you change the menu and you plan to bring some dishes back, but you forget," says Del Grande, who uses only organic, coarsely ground grits that he discovered in South Carolina.
Mooney shares an affection for South Carolina's contribution to grits. Case in point: Mooney has brought "shrimp and grits," a respected dish from that state, to Ouisie's ($18) and Urbana ($16.50). It starts with his trademark jalapeño cheese grits, which are slow-cooked with fiery peppers, jack cheese and lots of butter and cream, then topped with a shrimp sauté of garlic, bacon, mushrooms, Tabasco and green onions.
Still, Mooney can't take all the credit for the grits revival. Other restaurants are also tapping into their Southern heritage, such as Brennan's [3300 Smith, (713)522-9711], which pairs golden chèvre cheese grits with a pan-roasted shrimp appetizer ($8.50) and the braised venison osso buco ($26).
Scott Atlas, chef at the Confederate House [2925 Weslayan, (713)622-1936], decided to pair up his grits with some odd bedfellows: sharp New York state cheddar cheese and authentic tasso, the Southern speciality also known as New Orleans ham. The grits are spooned out with the rack of lamb ($28.95), grilled pork porterhouse chops ($18.95) and a lunch offering of pork tenderloin medallions ($13.95).
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Also jumping on the grits gravy train is Sonoma [1415 California, (713)522-7066], the hip hideaway in Montrose that benefits from Louisiana-reared chef Kirk DeLoach. He offers a simple cheddar cheese version, served in a crispy Parmesan basket, with his herb-crusted lamb chops ($26). Jerry Cox, opening chef for Hogg Grill [711 Prairie, (713)227-4644], created an appetizer of grilled quail and oysters, wrapped in bacon and served with cheddar cheese grits and red-eye gravy ($9.95, available only on weekends).
Mark's [1658 Westheimer, (713)523-3800] also pairs grits with quail. The apple-smoked, bacon-crusted quail appetizer ($6.50) shares the spotlight with Mississippi-style grits, which are blended with chicken stock and farmer cheese. You'll also find grits with Mark's oak-fire-roasted chicken ($16.25).
All of these have made a believer out of me. As comfort food, the humble grit deserves the same status as garlic mashed potatoes or wild mushroom risotto and certainly the same respect as polenta. Says Del Grande: "People try quick grits once and say they hate grits, but people who don't like grits have never had the real thing."
Who knows? If Houston continues to reinvent this Southern staple, grits might even find acceptance north of the Mason-Dixon Line. -- Melanie Knight